With Ludwig van Beethoven ( 1770-1827) the profile of music was completely changed. He came into the world a classicist and left it a romanticist. His genius was not the only factor in the change which took place. In fact, he was a tool of his age, or, more correctly, a channel through which the revolutionary spirit became musically articulate. With the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the War of 1812, unrest and change were rampant. The day of the individual had dawned, and no more independent thinker than Beethoven existed. He took his place with the seers of the age,--Goethe. Schiller, Kant, Fichte, Humboldt, Haydn, and Mozart.
Beethoven's tremendous crescendo in creative power made him the perfect vehicle for expressing the "spirit of the age." As J. W. N. Sullivan said in Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, "Beethoven's music continually developed because it was the expression of an attitude towards life that had within it the possibility of indefinite growth." "In his realization of suffering and in his realization of the heroism of achievement," his attitude towards life was the essence of romanticism. Sullivan also says, "Few men have the capacity fully to realize suffering as one of the great structural lines of human life"; and "No artist ever lived whose work gives a greater impression of indomitable strength than we find in some of Beethoven's most characteristic movements."
Beethoven was an innovator in spite of himself. "The new and the original is born of itself without one's thinking of it," he said. His work divides itself into three clearly defined styles: First, the stage of imitativeness, in which he used the forms handed to him by his eighteenth century predecessors, was an out-and-out classicist, and made experiments in various instrumental combinations.
Second, the stage in which his individuality began to assert itself, marked by his own statement to his publishers, concerning two sets of variations, opp. 34 and 35 ( 1803), "Both are handled in an entirely new manner . . . usually I hardly realize when my ideas are new, and hear of it first from others; but in this instance I can myself assure you that I have done nothing in the same manner before." In this period we find his poetic gift in its richest plenitude representing the activity of a vigorous, deeply emotional mind. The compositions include three piano concertos, the C minor, G major, and the Emperor; the three Rasoumoffsky quartets (op. 59); the Harp Quartet; the Violin Concerto; Fidelio with the four overtures; also the Egmont and Coriolanus overtures; the Kreutzer, the Waldstein, and the Appassionata sonatas, and the symphonies from the Eroica to the Eighth.
Third, the transcendent period which "rises from the active life to the contemplative; from the transfiguration of human joys and sorrows to the awe and rapture of the prophetic vision," says W. H. Hadow in his study of Beethoven ( Collected Essays).
Perhaps the fact that he had completely lost touch with the outer world of sound drove him into the holy of holies, that sphere of inner hearing of which he was seer and prophet. The modernism and profundity of these last works made the critics say, "Poor man, he is deaf and cannot hear the terrible discords he is writing!" The third period may be said to have begun with his F minor string quartet, op. 95, known as the Serioso, and includes the B flat piano trio, op. 97; the last piano sonatas from op. 101 to op. 111 inclusive; the Ninth Symphony, and the last five string quartets, from opp. 125 to 135, including the Great Fugue.
Of the last quartets, Robert Haven Schauffler writes in Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music: "The old quartet form did not suffice for the intense personalism of this music. So Beethoven invented new forms. In these the tempo changed more often and more capriciously than ever. The usual four movements grew to five --six--and even seven, as if in memory of the rococo divertimento and Suite. There was less strictness in the sonata-form movements. Their modeling was not so formally pronounced. The second subject sometimes burst in unprepared. The development grew shorter and more polyphonically intensive. . . . The most astonishing contrasts of naïve folk tunes with the music of philosophical reverie were forged in a whole by sheer sorcery. The voice-leading became wonderfully free and daring. In these quartets there are no neutral passages where the hearer may nod and recover. Every moment he must give all he has; for each note is packed with significance."
Schauffler justifies his title, Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music by showing how one era of music was closed and another ushered in by the "versatile emancipator." "We have seen him," Schauffler says, "by sheer personal magnetism, force of will, and intensity of genius, liberate the art of music from the long-standing indignity of being carried on by lackeys. We have seen him establish the composer's vocation upon a professional basis. . . . The poor boy from Bonn was the first composer to attain the dignity of seeing his symphonies printed in score.
We have seen Beethoven deliver the music of his day from the ignominious rôle of obsequious hanger-on of the fashionable world and make it a universal thing--a materialization of the utmost range of the human mind and spirit, omitting none of the peaks and abysses. We have followed this imperious figure as he emancipated personality in music, detonating in his scores such a profound charge of thought and passionate emotion that the world still vibrates with the shock. . . .
He took Continental music from the salon to the concert hall; from the castle to the cottage, and made it the most democratic thing in the æsthetic world.